On Wednesday, Sheriff Ed Prieto released the results of an internal employee survey, resulting from June’s Grand Jury report that criticized the sheriff’s office, particularly in his personnel operations. The result would appear to suggest morale problems and fear of retaliation pervading the sheriff’s organization.
The survey found that more than one-quarter of the sheriff’s employees plan to voluntarily leave their employment, with 27 of the 41 citing challenges with the culture and climate in the department and another 23 citing better career growth opportunities.
A large number cited poor morale and fear of reprisal as concerns about the workplace. Ninety-eight of 138 said that standards of behavior are not applied consistently. More than half believe that the rules governing the department’s promotion process are not applied fairly, with half saying that they would not be treated fairly in a promotional process.
Twenty-five percent of employees (32 of 126 who answered that question) reported experiencing retaliation when reporting issues or concerns. Sixty-three of 133 report that they are concerned that the sheriff would retaliate if they reported a sensitive issue or concern.
While a large number cited “do not know,” only 44 of 133 said they believe the sheriff manages the department professionally and only 47 of 134 believe they can speak honestly with the sheriff about issues and concerns.
The sheriff released a lengthy explanation of the survey results, noting, “We will continue to focus, as we have in the past, on the importance of proving our motto of ‘Service Without Limitations’ and I remain proud of our department and the overall tone of the internal confidential survey. I would like to thank the evaluators and members of our department for their focus on constructive choices that will ultimately enhance our department and provide better service to the community.”
In June of this year the Yolo County Grand Jury released a special report criticizing the Yolo County Sheriff’s Office. In response to the Grand Jury’s opinions, Sheriff Prieto initiated an independent working group to survey members of the department to get direct input and suggestions to improve the department.
According to his release, “The survey was not based on political expediency or favor, but in the hopes to continually better our operations and service to our community. The Sheriff’s Office and its management staff allowed the work group discretion to conduct this analysis independently and without attempts to influence or direct the outcome of the inquiry.”
The task force was chaired by former Woodland Mayor, Marlin “Skip” Davies, who met with representatives from all bargaining unions within the department to devise a survey that would accurately assess the climate of the department and to make suggestions on how operations could be improved.
The survey was transmitted electronically to all 265 sheriff’s office employees on August 14. Consistent with representations to department employees, the survey responses were kept anonymous.
The survey closed on August 27 and 166 department employees voluntarily participated in all or part of the survey. During the survey, employees were asked to respond to some questions with answers of yes, no, or undecided, while some questions were multiple choice and employees could select as many answers as they felt were applicable to their opinions of the department and its operations.
There were 18 questions that allowed respondents to respond in narrative form. The identities of those who responded in narrative form or those who requested to further elaborate on their opinions to the evaluators personally were not revealed to the department, to encourage free flow of information.
Sheriff Prieto commented, “The results of the survey revealed that in most categories, the department’s management team are meeting or exceeding standards the public and department employees would expect from a progressive law enforcement agency. The survey also pointed to some areas in which the operations and management of the department could improve.”
An average of 70 percent of the employees who responded were of the opinion that the sheriff and his command staff are approachable. Over 80 percent of the respondents believed their supervisors trusted them, supported their work, made themselves available to their employees and created an atmosphere where employees felt comfortable talking about work-related issues.
Employees also “revealed that they believed the work they do makes a difference in Yolo County. The department also received high marks in the areas of providing adequate job training and clear standards of behavior that reflects best law enforcement practices.”
Of the 105 employees who responded to the question about whether or not they are thinking of leaving the department, 62 stated reasons not able to be controlled by the sheriff’s office such as work location, pay and benefits, career change or retirement. Twenty-seven responded that, if they left, it would be due to their perceived challenges and culture of the department. Sixteen responded, “Other,” but that data was not provided to the department.
In addition to the positive perceptions of department operations, “employees were very candid regarding areas on which the Department could make improvements. One significant area employees believed improvement should be made is in the area of information flow and communication.”
After reviewing the survey results, the sheriff has implemented change. The department says that, as a result, it has initiated a monthly newsletter which will be distributed to every department member. Management staff has enhanced efforts to regularly visit all sections within the department and will continue to attend briefings and meetings to exchange information directly with employees and seek their input.
The survey also revealed that “a perception exists that department standards are not applied in a consistent manner among all employees. Being that personnel matters are, by law, confidential, they are not discussed openly among employees outside of an investigation.”
According to the release, “The Department is bound to enforce progressive discipline, so employees may be disciplined differently depending on the severity of the offense and the discipline history of the employee. Management and Supervisors are reaffirming these requirements with employees at regular meetings.”
Employees also stated that “our personnel evaluation system is not always fair and consistent.” Along with the Peace Officer Standards and Training’s mandated supervisory training, the sheriff says it has directed that all department supervisors and managers participate in personnel evaluation update training which is in the finishing stages of being completed. “The theme of this training consists of clarifying rating standards, defining rating categories, clarification of job standards and expectations and fairly documenting employee performance while giving recognition to an employee’s work. This training will also re-establish the goal of guiding employees toward achieving their full potential and providing enhanced service to the community.”
The release stated, “Law enforcement executives from within Yolo County gave the Sheriff high marks in his professional demeanor. Sheriff Prieto has been in positions of law enforcement supervision/management for over 30 years. The Sheriff has become comfortable enough with his employees, regardless of rank, to communicate with them in an informal manner.
“Within the department, the Sheriff knows that his large stature can be intimidating to some, so this style of informal communication strives to put employees at ease. The Sheriff has realized the perception of his informal approach and is now addressing employees by name, rank or title.”
The release goes on to state, “Although, the task force report stated that 63 of 133 believed the Sheriff or his representatives would retaliate against them if they were to report a sensitive issue, the same survey reported that 94 of 126 respondents to a similar question stated they have never been retaliated against by the Sheriff or his representatives.”
The release continues, “The Sheriff and management staff have a zero-tolerance policy for retaliation, which he consistently discusses with Department supervisors and managers. In order to remain progressive and innovative, three months ago, the Department set up a full time unit to review and completely revise our Department’s General Orders manual in order to ensure continual compliance with the latest laws, case decisions and proper, modern law enforcement practices. When completed, every paid and volunteer member of our department will receive a written updated copy.”
The sheriff said he has directed Undersheriff Tom Lopez to form an internal task force, consisting of representatives from every employee bargaining unit from within the sheriff’s office, to focus on making improvements in the areas addressed in the survey and to develop a plan to continue this forum into the future.
—David M. Greenwald reporting